The scourge of malnutrition

February 9, 2012

By Adnan Abidi

As a photo-journalist my work is to bring out stories and emotions through pictures. And I have been doing that for the last umpteen number of years. However, after so many years of capturing events that have shocked people across the world, I was about to stumble upon a reality that would be even more shocking than what my camera could capture. It was one such assignment where me and a colleague were to travel to Rajasthan, India. The story was on one of the most prevalent issues of my developing nation—Malnutrition. When I started out from Delhi towards Rajasthan, I did have an idea of what was about to come my way. However, I never anticipated the intensity with which it would move me.

The first stop we made was in a village called Shahbad, the place where we were to actually find some severely malnourished children. After travelling 12 hours by car our visit turned out to be bitter disappointment since we found nothing except empty and ill-maintained hospital wards. After a lot of discussion and research the local doctor at the hospital agreed to take us to the Kasba-Thana village, located at the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border, so that our story could gain perspective and ground. It was this village that brought its first shock for me.

During my wandering through the village I learnt that the way of life in this village was quite different from what I have experienced living in an urban city. In this village, which is home to the Sahariya tribe, women are the bread winners of the family. Not because these women are empowered and belong to an ultra modern tribe, but the men of the tribe have resigned themselves to absolute reckless lives.

The local doctors told me that while most women of the tribe go out and earn daily wages at early hours of the day; their men start to drink around the same time. In fact such exploitation has resulted in the abject poverty of the families and severe malnourishment of their children.

Projecting this dismal condition is a tribal woman’s admission that her two year old son Raj, is habituated to eating mud and dirt. “He is now use to it. It does not affect him anymore,” said Pista. It was due to the low levels of proper nourishment that in the area that prompted the state government to initiate a welfare programme for the tribe. According to the welfare program, the parents of every malnourished Sahariya child brought to the nutrition rehabilitation centres for treatment would be paid Rs 100. However, that too has been of no avail as women there say that whatever they get has been wasted on drinking by their husbands.

While Raj’s alternative, of eating mud, to proper nourishment was an appalling case, it was still not enough to make for a story. In search of some more cases, we finally made our way to Shivpuri, a village in Madhya Pradesh. While the village promised us enough cases to make for a comprehensive narrative it also brought with it shocking stories.

One such instance was when two year old Rajni was admitted to the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre. The sight of her being weighed on the machine was enough to make my hair stand. The girl was literally skin and bones, with her hide hugging so tightly to her body that it outlined every contour of her skeletal structure. Her expression was that of pain. Rajni’s condition moved me as I had never seen a child that was so severely under nourished. For me hunger and poverty was limited to what I have seen on the streets of Delhi. Rajni’s pain and plight was impossible to bring out in a picture.

It was not just Rajni alone that managed to bewilder me with her condition. I was speechless to see when a mother had no other way but to fake breast feeding, just so that her child could be fed.

Four months old Vishaka clung close to her mother’s bosom thinking that she is being fed her mother’s milk. But actually she is taking her nourishment from a thin plastic pipe, dipped in a bowl of milk. Due to lack of food, Vishakha’s mother is unable to feed her child as her breast milk has dried up.

The dismal condition of Rajni and Vishakha made for some very strong pictures. I knew that whatever I click now will be a very hard-hitting picture. But I was also aware, no amount of talent or experience would actually be able to capture the dismal and painful plight of the children. I am a photo-journalist. My work is to bring out stories and emotions through pictures, something that I have been doing for the last several years. However, after so many years of producing appalling images, I finally ran into an assignment where reality would be more shocking than what a camera can capture.

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